Every two years the Texas Republican Party has a chance to redefine itself when delegates vote on a new version of its platform at its state convention. The system by which the contents of the platform comes together is a messy organic one which ought to represent a political snapshot of the party, but in recent years it has been hijacked by vocal special interests, producing a platform which is an embarrassment to the party and its members.
The platform originates at the grassroots of the party where delegates in every county submit resolutions which go through a committee at their local senatorial district convention which assembles a draft slate of resolutions which are then voted on by the convention and passed on, along with the 49 similar bundles of resolutions, to another committee at the state level. This committee takes all those resolutions and boils them down to make a party platform which is voted on by the delegates at the state convention who usually don’t even have the time to read them.
This sounds like a great example of bottom-up grassroots politics, but there are a few problems with this sausage-factory process.
In fact, those “grassroots” resolutions mostly don’t really originate with common concerned citizens. Most of them are written by special interest groups which send them out in mass emailings to their constituents who then obediently submit them all over the state. So what they represent is not so much the interests of common Texans, but rather the interests of the most organized and motivated pressure groups with their volume cranked up to 11 by the internet. Quite often the groups which are most vocal are also the ones which are the most radical and farthest from the mainstream, while average party members are not as motivated or as organized in opposition.
Theoretically the committees on the district and state level are supposed to filter and edit the resolutions into something representative of the party, but they operate on the principle of not making any decisions which would offend anyone who can shout loudly enough to get attention. They are literally buried under paper and there is no one in a position to set limits or take a firm hand or just sit down and write a clear and coherent platform which represents the broad beliefs of the party. Instead they get frustrated and intimidated and just include the proposals of the most strident groups, producing a platform which is an amalgamation of the pet peeves of a bunch of fringe special interests.
This hasn’t always been the case. Through the 1970s many fewer resolutions were submitted and there was much less scrutiny of the process. The state-level committee was largely free to write a platform which it felt represented the best principles of the party based on their collective experience and good judgement. It was a less inclusive process, but it was more republican and more representative and produced a better result. Today’s platform is over 30 pages long with over 250 planks, but those old platforms were only a few pages long with 10 or 12 strong, general planks which everyone in the party could agree on.
It’s almost impossible to create a truly representative platform by including hundreds of specific positions. Only an approach based around general, shared principles can be truly representative. Mainstream party members are fed up with having the party represented by the ideas of its most extreme factions. It’s hard for candidates to run on a platform which includes many ideas which they don’t agree with and don’t want to be associated with, and it’s humiliating to be connected with a platform which is the target of jokes by late night comedians, attacks from partisan pundits and outraged editorials in the national and even international press.
A lot of the criticism focuses on the most obviously offensive things which consistently make their way into the platform, like the call to reinstitute the sodomy law which was struck down by the Supreme Court or the demand that creationism be taught in public schools. But there’s something in there to offend everyone, from banning suggestive TV ads for products like viagra, to taking away the parental rights of gay parents, to the most radical positions opposing immigration and free trade, to endorsements for various “New World Order” type conspiracy theories.
There has been an increase in organized opposition to the unappealing character of the platform. The Republican Liberty Caucus has put forward a slate of sensible resolutions on key issues which they hope will get enough support from the growing libertarian wing of the party to get included in place of some of the more offensive positions. Some grassroots Republicans are trying to introduce negative resolutions opposing some of the perennial rotten planks. Other groups are trying to convince the committees to scrap all the resolutions and just produce a short and simple platform based on core principles. The final option is to do what some other states have done when faced with this problem and introduce an alternative platform from the floor of the state convention, timing the move so that most of the delegates aren’t paying attention when it comes up for a vote.
The push for platform reform has never been stronger, but it will take a lot of effort and a lot of organization to overcome the stridency of fanatical single-issue activists. Texas Republicans deserve a platform which they can be proud of and which every Republican can stand by and support. The creation of a better platform is a real test of the maturity of the party. Can diversity be turned into strength, expressed as a platform of basic shared principles, or will the platform again represent the clamoring voices of extremism and factionalism which are tearing the party apart?
This article appeared in somewhat different form on Blogcritics.org